February 24, 2020

Journey to Mars: Our Two Cents

Will this scene ever become reality?

Image credit: SpaceX

Would you go to Mars?

Last week, SpaceX’s Elon Musk made a seemly bold announcement, as  he outlined how humanity could colonize Mars.

It was exhilarating stuff, for sure. Elon’s the closest thing we have to a real-life Tony Stark, one of the new generation of civilization-conscious billionaires, a guy we’d actually like to have a beer with.

Sure, we’d love to see skyscrapper-sized rockets departing the Florida Space Coast with colonists bound for a brave new world. Vision is great, vision is vital. And Elon’s talk sparked lots of discussion of Mars and human exploration ’round ye ole web, which of course is a good thing.

The trouble we see is, we’ve been here before, with alarming frequency. The pattern seems to be hold a press conference and announce some amazing proposal Steve Jobs/Iphone style… but the problem is, nothing in the way of solid action in the form of getting rockets on launch pads ever seems to happen. Humans on Mars seems to be in the league of promises that are always 20 years away, akin to controlled nuclear fusion and a cure for cancer.

Sure, we could do it, and someday, assuming we decide to maintain a scientific technical edge as a civilization, we will. But I’d also maintain that we’re doing it wrong, and that a mission to Mars won’t be a simple flag-planting trip. But there’s a few things we need to conquer right here on good ol’ Earth before we become a truly space-faring civilization.

Everyone talks about living off the land on Mars, but the reality is, we can’t even do that yet here on Earth on a small scale. If we could at least master growing food via hydroponics say, in Antarctica — a place more hospitable than Mars, where you can at least breathe the air — and establish a base there for an extended period of time, then we’re ready to replicate such a feat in space. Ironically, the hydroponics pioneers of a future space colony might be the marijuana growers of today…

And speaking of which, we need to build the promised machine mentioned in every ‘lets go to Mars’ press conference that takes rocks and dirt in one end,  and produces fuel raw building material out the other. Again, we could start figuring this out now before we head to Mars.

Radiation exposure is also a non-trivial issue. There’s good evidence to suggest that a two year trip to Mars will give you the brain of an alcoholic Alzheimer’s patient. Shielding is one solution, but who wants to live out their last days in a tin can? One idea is to simply let cosmic rays and solar radiation do their dastardly deeds, and then have nanobots in an astronaut’s bloodstream ready to repair the damage. This would regulate the solution to a simple nanobot inoculation, prior to spaceflight. Sure, this is hand-waving super-science, but hey, we’ve always got that ‘Mars in 20 years’ window to figure out how to do it.

Finally, we need to engineer humans for space travel. Sound outlandish? Well, perhaps genetic engineering techniques of the future might just make this a reality. Imagine: it would take much less, food, fuel and energy to send 12 inch tall humans to Mars. Weird, I know, but the future of space just might belong to the miniature.

That being said, we hope to live to see humans make footfall on the Red Planet and just maybe, buy a ticket there for ourselves one day.




  1. Garry says:

    Some good points made. I think we are only just now getting to the point where we can technically do a trip to Mars. There is still lots to do around the food issue and the psychological side of a long duration mission, however if somebody with the will such as Elon Musk can get all this together then I think it is possible. As for genetic engineering humans for space missions, I think that is well into the future, but replacing body parts with devices/limbs that would suffer less from the environment would be more do-able in the short term.

  2. The primary reason Mars has perpetually been 20 years a way is a lack of effort towards that goal. Sure agencies have invoked Mars to justify previous systematic decisions and whatever projects currently had political support, as a horizon goal on a Powerpoint presentation, or on silly extended road map(as if engineering specific systems was analogous to a journey to the land of Oz) but nothing literally toward going to Mars. Even today NASA is still building a spacecraft, the Orion, which is a Cis-Lunar Return Craft; that is what it was designed to do, to go to the moon and back for Apollo 2.0, we’re told now its continued for our efforts to Mars, but it is woefully inadequate for that task, and is continued simply to appease those who’d previously decided to shift NASA toward an Apollo 2.0 stance.

    There are people who live off of the land quite nicely, even today, not living off the land is a rather modern phenomenon. It’s not quite accurate to say that Antarctica is more hospitable than Mars in many respects, especially in the long-term. Yes the air is breathable, sort-of, but the shift between perpetual darkness and perpetual day depending on the season is nothing like the Earth-like Day-Night cycles of Mars(not to mention it makes solar power useless for months on end). Also Antarctica is relatively resource poor, sure there is water, as an ice sheet, which also happens to drastically limit access to mineral resources, the continent being covered in ice, is also effectively carbon poor(short of opening up offshore oil drilling, which won’t happen anytime soon for legal reasons).

    The radiation risks are drastically overblown, the mentioned study, which I’ve seen casually passed around as if it were the gospel truth, compares radiation doses THOUSANDS of times higher than astronauts would see going to Mars, in order to claim there is a risk. There are people today who live in radiologically active areas who every year receive radiation doses comparable to those that people would receive during a Mars mission and they have no radiological health effects. People working on the ISS right now also receive radiation dose rates equivalent to the average ones they’d receive on a Mars mission. The doses involved are comparatively small, a cancer patient for instance might receive an entire multi-year Mars mission’s dose of radiation during a single radiation treatment(an acute dose) in a single day, with only modest side-affects, effects which are entirely absent over long-term periods low level chronic exposure(one reason being the time for cellular regeneration and DNA error correction to take effect).

    All the talk about nano-tech, really isn’t nessisary, all the truly essential technologies for a Mars mission have existed for well over 20 years, if not far longer depending on your interpretation of the requirements. NASA could have reached Mars as early as the 1980′s had it been directed toward that goal, however its constituency based operating structure never allowed it to adapt to such an ambitious goal, instead the vast majority of human spaceflight goals after Apollo were made with the primary requirement that they justify previous NASA decisions, regardless of if those decisions were wise, reasonable, or even germane to the new task.

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